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An Interview with Yudhanjaya Wijeratne

    Yudhanjaya Wijeratne is a science fiction writer, a researcher, and an activist. Yudhanjaya’s work has featured in numerous publications and his latest work, The Salvage Crew, is a masterpiece containing a vast and glimmering constellation of interconnected philosophical and aesthetic ideas. Yudhanjaya created The Ricepunk Manifesto, which can be found on yudhanjaya.com, and as part of the Edgeryders collective he explores innovative approaches to the construction and organisation of a better world.

    I spoke to Yudhanjaya Wijeratne online on 15 May 2021.


    INTERVIEWER

    Before we spoke today you told me that you grew up reading, or being read, stories from a really wide range of cultures. There were stories from Myanmar and India and China and Europe. And you’ve also written about how Arthur C. Clark was a presence in Sri Lanka and that your first science fiction novel was Rendezvous with Rama. And you also mentioned Le Guin, Guy Gavriel Kay, Robert Holdstock, and Diane Wynne Jones. And Tennyson’s ‘Ulysses’, which you read in A Golden Treasury, comes to play a powerful role in The Salvage Crew. What led you to such a diverse range of books and influences? And what do you still find yourself going back to when you’re writing today?


    WIJERATNE

    Oh, lovely. That’s a good question, because I don’t think that I had a lot of choice, initially. When I answered your question—What did you grow up reading?—those weren’t stories I had any role in selecting, Those happened to be the stories that were around in the culture. I guess pretty much anyone in Sri Lanka will tell you the story of Rama and Sita, that’s Ramayana, and these things are part and parcel of the culture, and the stories that are passed on through it. And then on the other hand, if you want to read, and if you’re a child and your parents understand that you’re drawn to the fantastical, then really the selection that you can get is quite limited. And a lot of it then defaults to what I would consider classics. Things like the Mahābhārata classics, The Odyssey, The Iliad, The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, The Water Margin, and also The 1,001 Arabian Nights. These are all international classics that have persevered for a long time.

    So if you’re a parent who doesn’t really know much about science fiction or fantasy, those stories are fantastical and there’s also this cultural link to many of these stories. For example, my mother used to read me Journey to the West. And I remember even as a kid, we were drawing the obvious parallels between Hanuman, of mixed South Asian mythology, and the Monkey King, both incredibly mischievous, both could leap long distances, both have this sort of, as you will, cudgel, they had similar moves sets. And even back then we were like, —Ah, all right, so this must’ve been one of our guys who went to China and made trouble there. And so there’s this thousand-year conversation that was happening in those stories.

    And so that was the literature that I was exposed to growing up. And then as I grew older and I was able to make choices by looking at libraries and so on, a large part of it was down to what bookshops and bookshelves offered here in Sri Lanka, where we may not necessarily have access to everything because shipping is so expensive. And it’s still a problem now. And we would often have access to books that had survived on the bestseller lists for 5 to 10 years, because when you’re a bookseller, you can’t necessarily risk bringing down this season’s best sellers or the latest New York Times Top 40 or whatever it is, because you’re now risking an extraordinary amount of money in the process of shipment and payment and so on. So you wait a little bit and you look for books that seem to be perpetually popular. So that’s what really entered my reading canon, because those are the books that I naturally ended up picking up: books that tended to have a longer shelf life. Which naturally means that I missed out on quite a lot. But I also was fortunate enough to read a loose collection of books that seemed to be of extremely high quality in the sense that they seemed to have a lot of endearing qualities about them. And they seemed to be a little bit more timeless than some of the books that I read today, for example.


    INTERVIEWER

    Were there particular booksellers or bookshops that you remember?


    WIJERATNE

    Yes. So we didn’t have a lot of money growing up. My parents started out incredibly rich, and then my father became an alcoholic and we became incredibly, incredibly poor. Like, one meal a day and couldn’t afford to go to school poor. So what I would do is I would save up and I would go to this place called the Maradana secondhand bookshops. They are now an almost defunct institution, but I believe a few of them still exist. I think they’ve been hit very hard by the lockdown. Incredible variety of secondhand bookshops. The kind of place that you walk in and you have piles and piles of books all the way up to the ceiling. And there’s some old man who’s darting through these piles. And if you catch him, it’s like catching the wizard. He’ll tell you exactly what you need. But it’s a little bit like finding Gandalf—you may not find him, but if you do, it’s awesome.

    I would go to this place called Vijitha Yapa, which was the premier bookshop at the time—I think it still is, though I haven’t been there in God knows how long. I think they have some of my books now, ironically. So, I would go there would and stare at these books that were extraordinarily expensive, and I would note down the names and then I would go to the secondhand bookshops and see if I could find a copy of these things. So those shops like Vijitha Yapa, particularly the one at Unity Plaza at Bambalapitiya, and the secondhand bookshops a little bit further away, are where I ran into Clarke. Because I remember I got into Lego, knock-off Chinese Legos, and I was busying myself trying to make these rocket ships and so on. And there were two shows, one was called Spellbinder, I think it was Australian, and the other was called Space Cases, which looking back was a bit of a Star Trek rip-off with some really wonky children, but it was one of those shows that really made me stay up and imagine spaceships going around planets, and I started looking up photos of Jupiter and I started bugging my parents to buy me encyclopaedias. I would always try to memorize everything in the astronomy section: the speed of light is 186,000 miles per second, the distance from here to Andromeda. Just, well, everything. I think my mum at some point took me to one of these bookshops and we caught the wizard and she said, —Do you have anything with rockets? And he said, —Ah, rockets, well you have to read Clarke then. Oh, okay, just give him lots of that and let’s talk afterwards about what it costs.


    INTERVIEWER

    You found exactly who you needed to find. That’s wonderful. And what was your first impression of Clarke?


    WIJERATNE

    To be honest, I didn’t like him. I didn’t like his writing because ancillary to this I’d been reading a lot of Wilbur Smith. I had been reading a lot of seventies Reader’s Digest. My grandfather kept reading Reader’s Digest, so every time I’d go to his place, I’d stick with his Reader’s Digest. I had a stack of these moldy, termite-ridden magazines from the seventies, that did have some extraordinary writing in them because they had a particular style, those Reader’s Digest books. They were very concise and had almost a trans-Atlantic radio announcer feel to them, the way the sentences were written, the way the cadences were set up. And I read that and I read Clark and I thought, —This is just not great writing. And I persevered, I read Rendezvous with Rama, and I wasn’t blown away. I put that book down and I was very puzzled.

    Then I think when I was 13 or 14, I broke my arm, and my father ended up taking me to work with him every single day, because both my parents worked. So, he took me to work, and what he’d do was he’d drop me off at the British Council and he’d go to work. And I’d stay at the British Council from 8:00 AM to 5:00 PM, just reading. That’s it. That’s all I did. So while there I came across Clarke’s Childhood’s End and The Ghost from the Grand Banks. And I know a lot of people don’t like it, but The Ghost from the Grand Banks really struck a chord. That really stood out. The scenes where she gets into the Mandelbrot fractals, and this whole explanation about how people spend hours, and sometimes days and years, lost in the fractal trying to map it, that really struck me. And I think my interest in fractals, in mathematics, single-handedly came from The Ghost from the Grand Banks, because I don’t remember anything about the plot, except that they were trying to raise the Titanic, but that part about fractals really struck me. So I was very much drawn to that. And when I read Childhood’s End, I was like, okay, wow this is mind-blowing stuff. This is big thinking. So that’s how I got into Clarke actually.


    INTERVIEWER

    It’s great that you mentioned The Ghost from the Grand Banks as I really like it, but I haven’t read it in a long time, and I’d forgotten the connection to fractals. But I must have read it around the time I started reading a whole bunch of popular mathematics stuff like Does God Play Dice? by Ian Stewart. And also around the same time I think I read Jurassic Park, and that book got me into chaos theory.


    WIJERATNE

    I remember there was a time though—I think this may be unique to Sri Lankan bookshops, and the delayed nature of those bookshops—there was a time when it was Rama and Crichton and quantum mechanics, and this new thing called computers, and hackers. And for a while, for, a season, that was pretty much everything on the shelves.


    INTERVIEWER

    You edited Mohs 5.5: Megastructures, and I discovered from Wikipedia that a Mohs 5.5 is approximately the hardness of the mineral Carrollite, which isn’t named after Lewis Carroll, and Goethite, which is named after Goethe. And I thought this was interesting in relation to you and your work, because both Lewis Carroll and Goethe are at very interesting intersections of mathematics and poetry. And also maybe an intersection with the idea of gods, too, and religion. And in The Salvage Crew, you mentioned Wittgenstein and how he’s a hybrid of logician and poet, or maybe poet and logician. And Wittgenstein once wrote, —How can I be a logician before I’m a human being? How do you see mathematics and poetry playing into your fiction? And how much is your writing about coming to terms with yourself and your place in the world?


    WIJERATNE

    Oof, that’s a big one. That’s a very big question. Since that’s two questions, let me tackle the latter question first. The first story I published was called ‘The Slow Sad Suicide of Rohan Wijeratne’ in which a depressed alcoholic who is trying to commit suicide, but cannot, signs up to be shot into a Kerr singularity: a rapidly-spinning black hole which spins so fast that instead of a point singularity, it forms a ring. And the Penrose diagrams involved in this are rather interesting, but if you go at it through the right angle, theoretically, there are ways that you can come out that would make for some good Interstellar-type material, let’s say. So I think a large part of that story was very self-referential. A depressed alcoholic rather summed up my existence at the time.

    The next one I wrote was called ‘Omega Point’ a short story about God which was using the theories of Omega Point from Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, who was this Jesuit priest who posited that entropy, et cetera, the universe keeps going down to grey goosh, or whatever, however, life against all expectation keeps evolving towards greater complexity. So he posited that what if we were evolving towards a system so complex, so functionally capable, that it would be indistinguishable from God. And by that, he means: what if God exists in the future and not in the past. And for this there was excommunication scandal, and he was sent to China, and then he died there. So a lot of this was me trying to find my place, as you said, in the universe. And coming to terms with loneliness, because ‘Omega Point’ was about a God who used black holes as information storage and supernova were essentially neurons flaring, and this god is fundamentally lonely, and therefore tries to nudge civilisations together into communicating and forming this neural network that eventually gives rise to another intelligence, and in turn is devoured.

    A lot of these early stories were about me coming to terms with myself, with how I felt, with the theories and the philosophical systems that were jostling through my mind. And also ideas that I attached to, magpie-like, that I just found interesting and wanted to explore. Then later there was Numbercaste, the novel, and I was working at a Silicon Valley company at the time. Numbercaste was about a Silicon Valley company that essentially takes over the world by promising a utopia where they replace credit scoring with measures of social influence. And that came out, I think just a few months before the announcement of China’s social credit system went viral throughout the Western information ecosystem. So that gave it a good boost. But again, at the time, Numbercaste was written in the format of an ex-journalist who becomes a marketer at a Silicon Valley company and is just there for the ride and just wants his fuck-you money. And I was an ex-journalist who had joined a Silicon Valley company and as a marketer and just basically was tired of being poor and I just wanted some money. So a lot of these early things were very self-referential.

    I think it was with The Inhuman Race and with The Salvage Crew that I started looking outward and I started looking beyond myself and going, —What else is out there? And I started using stories as a mechanism to understand the world and to examine ideas that I found myself hooked by, and I’ve found a certain curiosity towards the ideas of Russell. If you notice, in The Salvage Crew, there’s both Russell and Wittgenstein there. Beacon at some point says, —Language is a way of denoting concepts and the relationships between them. And that’s Bertrand Russell. So I'm approaching ideas of language and how to represent it in a lot of the work that I do now, which is very much in the format of being a computational linguist. A lot of these things are jostling around in my head and I wanted a space to pull them out, to draw them to their natural extremes and to see how they fit in my head. So I think somewhere along the line, I started out trying to understand myself and somewhere along the line I matured to trying to understand more about the world around me.


    INTERVIEWER

    There’s a lot there.


    WIJERATNE

    I think I did skip your first question.


    INTERVIEWER

    Right, well that Wittgenstein quote—How can I be a logician before I’m a human being?—was in a letter to Russell, as you probably know. And I suppose my question—and I was having trouble formulating it—was also in reference to what you mentioned in the introduction to Megastructures, and your point about transitioning from one type of writer, a more ‘logical’ hard science fiction writer, to a writer of stories more grounded in the human.


    WIJERATNE

    Yes. I think on the question of, —How can I be logician before I’m a human? On that aspect, I get where Wittgenstein is coming from. And these things, these concepts like being a logician, these are all drawn from our experiences, which are fundamentally rooted in us being human. And therefore it almost makes no sense to use the word logician divorced from the reality of being human, because that’s what spawned it. However, I don’t think Wittgenstein necessarily was thinking about the possibility of aliens, or of other forms of life, other forms of intelligence, that are not necessarily human, that could also lay claim to the title ‘logician’. And that was what I was especially interested in with Beacon. So I’m not going to say Wittgenstein was wrong, because that’s the sort of thing that would get me skewered by philosophy departments and people many hundreds of times smarter than myself, and far more obsessed with Tractatus. However, I am going to say that what we think of as intelligence, and what we think of as logic, is a set of constructs. It is literally a Wittgenstein’s Ladder: a set of constructs that we can use to ascend to another layer of constructs. And at some point the ladder becomes useless and we throw it away. But that is not to say that the ladder cannot be reverse engineered or something similar to that ladder cannot have been created by another type of intelligence that’s out there. If it is a useful tool, then I don’t see why not. For example, if the idea of one plus one being two turns out to be universally useful—useful in many instances in commerce throughout the world and throughout the galaxy—then I dare say, you will find many civilisations who will reverse engineer that and who have some relationship, some concept and a relationship that can be very accurately mapped to that statement in our own languages. So yes. So that’s where I leave Witty.


    INTERVIEWER

    And that moves us to The Salvage Crew, an astounding book. After I finished listening to it the first time, I went back over the final section two or three times, and then I started to read the ebook, which I’d bought at around the same time. And I need the hardback on my shelf, too. How did you go about creating that The Salvage Crew, and I don’t mean just the novel—the novel is many things, it's a constellation of ideas, a toy box full of delights—I mean those different elements: Amber Rose, and the world of Urmahon Beta, and the plot. How did that all come about?

    WIJERATNE

    Yes, so it’s very interesting that you mentioned plot there. So, okay, let’s look at components. So, the way I write is I become interested in something and I go read the paper and I go watch a documentary on it. I dig deeper into it and I start reading up the papers and the surrounding literature on it, and I become interested in it, and I lock it away in my brain, and keep it there. And then I become interested in something else. And then I bring that back and toss it in with the other stuff. And then I become interested in something else, and then I bring it back and toss it in the others. So I’m a little bit like an intellectual magpie, in that sense. Now, what I find is that when I do this, when I do this process of acquisition, often these things are in completely unrelated domains. And I used to drive my boss completely crazy because he used to say, —You’re interested in everything, man, you need to focus. Because he was a computer scientist who had trained at MIT and so on. And he was like no, —You need to focus on one thing. And I was like, —No, I want to know about everything in the universe. So, I find that when I bring together enough of these ideas, and I throw them in that mental box, sometimes the connections between them seem to spark. And sometimes I start seeing lateral connections between these otherwise isolated domains of thinking or knowledge or art.

    Where the whole The Salvage Crew story started was firstly, there was OpenAI’s GPT-2. Of course, I operate a fact checker when I’m not writing, so one of the things that I was truly interested in is when OpenAI created GPT-2 they did a really rather sensational release about it. Usually the way these things are done is there is an academic paper published, usually in NeurIPS or some high-value conference, but instead these guys went, —No, here’s the paper, we are going to do this splash page, it’s going to be talked about in The Verge and so on and so forth. So I heard about this and I was looking at it, and I was looking at the quality of the text that it was turning out. And of course, a few of my colleagues pointed out that, yes, it’s pretty good, it’s coherent, it’s incredibly interesting. But there’s this almost uncanny valley feeling there, where there’s this slight element of oddness that it can’t quite get to. And I was saying, that’s not the point. The point is in practice, you could take this and feed it, feed it something like a bunch of articles from writers from The New York Times, and you could create an entire website out of nowhere in a couple of seconds. And as a human, you could do just enough editing that you would have the equivalent of a web page full of misinformation with a tenth or a fiftieth of the effort that it could otherwise have required. And that’s the value of this, because at a certain level of quantity, it starts to gather social weight of its own. It doesn’t necessarily matter if every article has perfect prose and is talking about real world events. At a certain point, these things stack up and that’s quite a lot of how conspiracy theories and misinformation work actually repetition.

    So I was looking at this and I thought, —Wow, okay, this is really interesting, let me download this and let me try and do this for myself. So while I was doing that I remember reading this Facebook paper where Facebook had essentially set up two chatbots to talk to each other. And these inputs had cycled back and forth between the chatbots and you found them stripping out so much language, stripping out so much information that would otherwise be required for humans to communicate, and almost coming up with their own stripped-down, bare-metal version of language that they were using to communicate to one another. Now, of course, a lot of news sites ran this story saying Facebook shut down two bots that invented their own language. Not really. They were probably just spamming each other, the equivalent of saying, —Hey, Alexa, play Beatles. But over time, because they had stripped out so much information, it was something like what we call a Principal Components Analysis, a PCA, basically reducing a data set to just useful information. So this had happened, and these two ideas now jammed in my head and stuck there.

    And at the same time I was exploring this concept of apophenia. So, I am a huge nerd for video games. I am a competitive gamer, or probably used to be—I won the national gold for Overwatch for my overseas team once, and after that day just got back to life. But I am a huge fan of video games. I’m a huge fan of video game design, and I’m also a huge fan of procedural or game design. This stems from my interest in fractals. This stems from Clarke and Ghost from the Grand Banks because fractals are at the heart of a whole lot of generative art. And I’ve always been interested in writing code to generate worlds for me. And that’s why I keep modding Minecraft, for example. So in this procedural programming space, in this space of game design, there’s this concept called apophenia that’s quite popular. And apophenia is the human tendency to draw patterns out of random noise. If you present a human with a random sequence of events, it will try to infer causality. And, of course, what is a story, if not a first, a second, and a third act, causally linked between them, right? That’s the oldest—almost the poetics—definition of a story. So, we try to infer causality between random events, we chain these things together, and then we tell ourselves stories out of this. And this is how religion emerges. This is how so much of after-the-fact non-fiction books, retroactively analysing success for example, emerges. But this is also how gameplay emerges. This is how people play Dwarf Fortress and create long running stories out of what’s essentially pseudorandom variables interacting with each other, right? People tell stories to each other, and these stories are how we perceive the world. So, this then jammed with all the other stuff that I had packed in there.

    And I went, —Okay, I want to explore this idea of language, I want it to be about a machine, I want it to be about AI and machine learning, and because I am capable of spinning up these models and doing something with them, I want to not just talk about AI and humans in the future, because automation and AI and all these of these are narratives that are constantly in the development sphere that I work in as a data scientist, these narratives always exist and are always responding for, to, or criticizing some of these strands of thought. And I said, —As a writer, I want to step away from just talking about the shit and I want to do it. And I want to see if I can actually do a human plus AI approach where I’m co-writing with a bunch of code.

    What code? Okay, there’s this stuff that is now really sticking out strongly in my mind, which is drawn from this procedural game development sphere. So, let me figure out how to write a planet generator. Let me figure out how to write characters. The plot, as you say, [laughs] a bunch of code that will throw events at me constantly. And several different programs, actually, because then the interactions are so much richer in my head. There’ll be one program that uses very simple Markov chains to tell me what the weather is like. When it started getting colder, that was a program. Then there was another program that was generating enemies. So there’s a set of invisible Mercers that show up. And it just so happened that they started showing up when the other programs started telling me, —Hey, it should be snowing right now. Then something in me said, —That’s terrifying, invisible enemies in the snow where you have low visibility in any case, let me take that.

    So that was the bulk of the plot. What I actually created was the character of Amber Rose, and their backstory. And Beacon. And this idea of poetry being the communication medium between them, because drawing from Wittgenstein, and drawing from these bots, these Facebook bots creating their own pseudolanguage, I started thinking, —If you met an alien, what if it wasn’t really interested or impressed by weapons or satellites and all manner of remorseless pieces of metal, because it already has these things. It’s old hat. And, —What if its definition of intelligence for us are these things making art? Are they playing the language game? And how do you see that? And how do you measure that? You look for whether these things are generating poetry, because poetry is the art of taking words and arranging them in space so that there’s not just meaning in the syntactical sense, but the arrangement in space implies more information than is actually contained there.

    There’s this nuanced sense of intricate emotion that comes out in a Robert Frost poem—a function of the spacing and the arrangement of the words—that wouldn’t necessarily appear if you wrote a Robert Frost poem out in prose. The information gets lost. So, if you're looking for intelligence, you look for things that are really trying to push this information boundary in this way and are trying to reinterpret their surroundings by creating art about it and imposing their consciousness on the world. And that really got me started thinking about Beacon, and on the back end, there was Amber Rose coming up: the Buddhist farm boy who ran away searching for a better life and who is now this kind of tired, weary traveller who is very similar to me when I play a strategy game.


    INTERVIEWER

    The voice for Amber Rose is just wonderful. And it’s funny that you mentioned playing a strategy game, because that’s exactly it, the omniscient player. And the drones are like the player camera floating over the simulated world.


    WIJERATNE

    It’s every other colonist game where you’re micromanaging characters and you’re frustrated with them.


    INTERVIEWER

    When you were dealing with these algorithms and processes, did you feel that you were curating to make things fit the fiction?


    WIJERATNE

    Yes. I think it’s a lot of curating. I think what a lot of what people miss when I talk about co-writing today and whatnot is the assumption that, hey, this machine comes to you with something fully formed and then you edit it, and that’s not really what happens. Anyway, that would be pointless, that takes the fun out of things. It’s more like walking through a museum of art that’s constantly changing. And some of it is like walking into a modern art museum where some of it, you don’t necessarily understand, and some of it you don’t agree with, and some stuff, for some strange reason unknown to you, strikes a chord in your soul and you’re really engrossed by it. So it’s like walking through a museum and taking what seems interesting and curating that and trying to make sense of that and putting those strands together, because you also have to realize, for example, the poetry in The Salvage Crew, my retrained version of OpenAI GPT-2, 345, wrote 800 poems. So out of that, I then went hunting for poems that seemed to match this tale that I was trying to tell, that seemed to match this dialogue that I was trying to create, but also added something to it. Particularly that line of ‘maidenhood is done away with the midnight bell’. I had that, and I went hunting through these 800 to curate what I eventually put in there, because Amber Rose was never meant to be the world’s best poet. It’s doing it out of boredom, but at the same time, I was looking for that slightly machine-like, slightly amateurish quality. And I was looking for poems that gave me that impression, but at the same time, it has to carry the story, and it has to make syntactical sense when I put it next to the words that I’ve written.


    INTERVIEWER

    The ‘maidenhood’ line of poetry is created by Amber Rose after it is presented with a Go board, and doesn’t really get anywhere with it, right? And with Go, there is that intersection, again, of logic and poetry. And shapes and connections. I find it fascinating.


    WIJERATNE

    And the Go board becomes a star map towards the end of the journey. And I use the Go board very specifically because in the AI community, in much of the AI discourse, Google’s DeepMind wins against Lee Sedol, who was the reigning gold champion. That was a subject of much discussion in the AI and machine learning community because Go had hitherto been considered an almost unsolvable problem, far more complex than chess. And the interesting thing was that the AI involved in this Go match was trained by a human Go player to a certain degree, and the next version of it essentially trained against itself to win. So it created its own move set almost out of nowhere. It didn’t rely on this 2000-year-old corpus of knowledge that had already pre-existed, this corpus, which weighs on how modern players interact with the Go board. It was free to do whatever. And I was reading the commentary around the moves that it was playing and at move 37 in the second game the commentators just stop and go, —We’ve never seen anyone play that, ever, that’s not a human move. And you can see the human champion just realising the alienness of what he was up against. And I pity him in this instance.

    So I wove the Go board in as a reference to that as well, because my theory is that this transformer technology, it’s not super sophisticated at the moment—what OpenAI and so on are doing are essentially throwing massive amounts of data in it, but it is almost as good as a human being. It’s almost as good as a human writer. It’s knowledge acquisition skills are insane. It’s question answering abilities are insane. And I use ‘insane’ as a byword for, relative to where we were five years ago. This thing is on a different level altogether. And we will have that. Writers will have this AlphaGo moment. It’s odd because in the writing community, we spend so much time saying, —Oh, when machines take over my job, they can never write as well as me, and so on. And we, we point to those silly Twitter sketches of, —I taught a bot how to watch an ad, then it wrote the script. Which are all fake. What a lot of writers miss out on is that not all of us are T. S. Eliot. Not all of us are Ted Chiang. With most writers, you will find a body of perfectly competent work, not the shining, glittering gems, which I doubt an AI system will be able to create, at least with the state of the technology today. But the bulk of what people write creatively, quite a lot of it can be matched. A lot of people will deny this, but if you’re talking about quality of prose, then, yes, this is doable. So we will have that Go moment at some point. I’m just hoping that it’s a long way off in the future, but also at the same time, I’m excited. And I want to see if the future can be human plus AI instead of human versus AI.


    INTERVIEWER

    Kasparov is at the end of that AlphaGo documentary, and it’s an amazing documentary, and he says, as you note, that it isn’t a question of human or AI, but about how human abilities can be augmented by AI.


    WIJERATNE

    Yes, and Kasparov actually did this after he got defeated by by Deep Blue. He came back with centaur chess, or advanced chess, where it’s a human with a chess engine versus a human with a chess engine. And you suddenly find these teenagers, and otherwise low- to mid-rank chess players, playing at Grandmaster levels of Elo. Because these are two fundamentally different types of intelligences. You have the machine, which is good at depth search, which is good at looking up, which is good at operating at the middle of the bell curve, and drawing inferences from that. And then you have the human, the intuition, the chaos, the creativity, the flair, the drama, the tension, and all of that coming in. And at least from chess, we see the combination is so much easier. Now, chess and Go and so on are competitive areas where the win conditions are tightly defined. You either win or you don’t; there are points or there aren’t. Something like literature doesn’t necessarily have win conditions, and if it does, the boundaries are so loose as to not exist. And what is the win condition in literature anyway? Is it hitting The New York Times best seller list? Is it winning an award? Is it earning out your advances? All of these things are unknown, and we don’t know whether we can employ machine learning in a condition like that, because where you have a tightly defined win condition, it’s easier to teach a model. It’s easier to collect data as to what decisions eventually lead to the win or what doesn’t. Where you have these very loose win conditions, it might be a hell of a lot more difficult. I think this hybridity is where it’s going to be.


    INTERVIEWER

    Yes, absolutely. And I think you can see the moment in Lee Sedol’s eyes when he looks like he doesn’t know where to go next. And there is going to be an analogous moment with a poet who looks at a piece of poetry written by something non-human and doesn’t know where to go next. That moment of awe, that sense of wonder. I’m fairly optimistic about that and I’m looking forward to seeing it happen.


    WIJERATNE

    Oh, absolutely. And I think to do this properly, what you’d have to do is generate the poetry and then publish it in a poetry journal or some such under a human pseudonym, because the moment you say this was written by a machine—again, this is all subjective—people would jump in and say, —Oh no, you can’t hit machine, understand intricate emotion and nuance. And the response is, does it need to if it creates, raises, that emotion within you, the reader, the observer. Does it matter whether you’re getting answers out of a Chinese box? And I think one of the finest examinations of this has been in Peter Watt’s Blindsight. Have you read that?


    INTERVIEWER

    I haven’t yet, but ‘ve heard good things about it. What does he do?


    WIJERATNE

    O, you have to read it. I can’t say too much without spoiling it, but it is one of the finest books ever written on what a truly alien intelligence might look like. And I lump it in my head with this thinking around AI, because what is artificial intelligence, if not the ultimate alien intelligence, it’s magnificent.


    INTERVIEWER

    Okay, I will add that to the list. Thank you. And I think The Salvage Crew will be up there as well in terms of depictions of that encounter with a truly alien intelligence. And as I read it I thought, —He’s made the human feel incredibly small, on the one hand, but he’s also made the human feel so big, simultaneously, through the interactions, the meeting, of these two minds. And I thought it was genuinely really special. So I’ll be going back to it and I’ll be reading it again. I’m reading it again now.


    WIJERATNE

    That puts a really big smile on my face.


    INTERVIEWER

    And where do we see Amber Rose going next? I can picture these replicants in their uniforms all trekking out into space.


    WIJERATNE

    Oh, there’s a lot more. The next two books are due as the publisher has agreed to do two more books. A trilogy is actually all I want to do to tell that story. What I haven’t decided yet is which point of view the second book will stop from, because there are potentially many points of view in this. However, it will be fun. So my mark of whether it’ll be fun was, for the first book, were there big and shiny ideas I wanted to jump head first into. And there’s as much in the second and the third. So hopefully I do justice to them and it turns out just as fun a read.


    INTERVIEWER

    In the introduction to The Salvage Crew you note that the tools you used are already behind the curve. Can you hint at what tools you want to use for the sequels?


    WIJERATNE

    Definitely. So, I’ve already finished writing the galaxy generator. That was quite easy. That was surprisingly easy actually. I started writing a program to generate the galaxy, and then thought, actually I don’t give a damn about the absolute position of stars. What I care about is the social network between bodies and objects in this galaxy. I care about which stars are how many hops away from the galactic center. I care about what bodies orbit other bodies, and so on. In graph theory, in data science, there’s something called Erdős–Rényi graphs, which is a form of graph that you can generate, and by graph, I mean like a network of nodes with edges in between them. So Erdős–Rényi graphs often mirror social networks. So I took tools that I had essentially been using to study social networks, like one of my first research papers was a study on the Facebook network and how friends links between 2.3 billion people at country levels turned countries into this interesting and gigantic political-social network that you see in so many political conversations about, but you’ll never see from free-trade agreements or geography. So I took tools that I had written a couple of years ago for that, and I used that to generate a galaxy, and instead of countries, I just flipped them into stars, and I had those tiles generate sub-objects, planets. And I had those plants generate other things. So now we have this rather interesting galaxy map, if you will. I’ve also had them generate Kardashev values based on the closeness to the core and the amount of energy they’ll have. So you have the elders civilisations, you have younger civilisations, sometimes you have conflict zones. Younger civilisations with very high Kardashev values and are competing viciously in the elder civilisation space, which means they probably have a great deal of military tech, but nothing else. So they are like these vicious little puppies that are completely nuts and are trying to kill you every time they look at you.

    [Laughs] So I’ve got all of that happening. And the data structure is fine. So the story is essentially going to be a random walk through these. The algorithm that goes and goes from point A to point B tells me what places I’ll hit and I’ll pull the story out of it. I know the milestones of the story. I know what’s going to be told in the story. I know the interesting stuff they’re going to see. I’m toying with the idea of generating starships and civilisations and at least representations of the kinds of civilisations that they stumble into. I’m toying with that idea. I need a little bit more time to properly think about it and create the scenery, if you will. So in my head I have two options. One is to use the standard procedural generation stuff to create these scenes and what if you will what these ships look like and so on and so forth. That’s one. The other potentially more interesting option is teaching a type of neural network networks called GANs that are really good at generating faces and generating paintings and generally generating visual representations of things. I want to see if I can teach a GAN to draw me images, science fictional images, so my analogy of walking into a gallery isn’t just an analogy anymore. It’s an actual reality. I think there’s about a couple of months of work left on that.


    INTERVIEWER

    In terms of publishing it, how would you integrate this with a book, because a book seems old fashioned when you’re talking about what you’re describing here. And I used to read Clarke and jump into Elite on a BBC Micro, so I’ve always wanted to explore independently the worlds I was reading about. So I’d be reading this book you’re describing and I’d want to go and fly those starships and visit those planets.


    WIJERATNE

    So, my answer is I really want to get into game design because I want to be able to tell that kind of non-linear, branching storyline in a universe that the user can really explore. And again, I’m a huge gamer myself. So, that is the eventual mid-career goal, shall we say. I want to be doing games design. I’ve dabbled in it already, but these are tiny, less-than-indie games. These are little demos and projects. So that’s where I want to actually take this stuff and explore and see how it meshes in this kind of interactive situation. Right now, the idea of a book to me, a book is old fashioned, yes, but at the end of the day, the task that I have set for myself is to tell a good story. And to entertain and to make people think. The fact that I’m using all of this stuff to do it is ideally only of interest to me, and to you, and to a few of the people who are interested in the mechanics behind how the book was made. The book, first and foremost, is a damn good story. So my bar is that: to not get lost in the weeds and to stay true to, in fact to reinforce, my storytelling. So a book is really a fantastic constraint because I really can’t get distracted by the weeds here. It doesn’t matter how awesome and sexy my galaxy generator is, at the end of the day, the story, the words on the page, are the only thing that matters. So, I think of it as a good constraint. And I want to know the fundamentals and apply this stuff properly before I go much further.


    INTERVIEWER

    I like the idea of the book being a constraint. And with the audiobook you also have constraints, but they’re very different from those in a print book because of the fact that it’s spoken, that it’s an oral story. One really powerful moment in Nathan Fillion’s narration of The Salvage Crew is when Amber Rose is sending out the SOS broadcast, and there was something about hearing that read out, the repetition of that message, which made it incredibly effective.


    WIJERATNE

    Oh, yes. Absolutely. And that’s a distinct and deliberate rule of book two as well, because, before, when I wrote it, I had absolutely no idea that Nathan Fillion would be reading it. I thought this would be read by a grand total of three people and most of them would be friends and they would go, —Yeah, cool, you know what, let me buy you a beer for this book. And that’s just about it. But it ended up getting turned into an audiobook. So now with book two, an additional constraint is that it has to flow well for audio. And in fact, I have to think of it as an audio-first story that I then almost have to distill into text.

    So it’s interesting to have these bounding boxes. So one of the things I started doing in the middle of last year, in my birthday month, was I ended up writing a novella and it’s currently being shopped around for publishers. And this novella was written for, let’s say, an audio-first publisher, and they actually wanted it, but in that case my agent decided that it was not such a great deal for me after all. And she said, —No, let’s keep this, let’s take it to a bigger place. But writing for that particular audio format, going in after having written The Savage Crew, writing audio-first meant that I changed how I wrote a little bit. I would write a sentence and I would read it out loud to see how it sounded, to see if the cadence has matched, and to see if that rhythm kicked in.

    And there’s a fantastic tool called Nuance Dragon, again AI, and what it does is convert your speech to text. So I started playing around with that, not to write, but to understand how a potential narrator would approach a book, and where they would draw in breath, and where they would stop, and so on, because there’e some things that you can do with prose, and a lot of semicolons, that you should not necessarily be doing for audio. Whereas in audio, you might be better off sticking to something like V. S. Naipaul’s rules, no more than 13 words a sentence. Keep your words down to as few syllables as possible, but make those syllables distinct so that it’s easier to hear. So things like that. And almost reverse engineering the playbook. There’s a lot of that going on.


    INTERVIEWER

    Gary Gibson told me that he had moved almost entirely to Nuance Dragon, and he said that it has played into the way his prose reads, because he’s speaking his to the computer. He's telling his computer his stories.


    WIJERATNE

    Yes. And if you know that you’re going to be doing an audiobook, you should be working with that medium, and to some extent you should understand it. And I am not entirely sure if I will switch to using Nuance Dragon to write, because I am a fan of being able to tweak prose and being able to extend it into all sorts of interesting things and throw it around and stuff like that. The level of abstraction that you can achieve with just text. I really like that. And even Nuance has some trouble with my accent because not a lot of this software is made specifically for accents like mine. However, all of those things considered, I think it’s an absolutely fantastic tool.

    And I remember right after listening to The Salvage Crew I ended up listening to a new Neil Gaiman audiobook, and I had never listened to a Neil Gaiman audiobook in my life. And I was listening to this guy, and I’d read a lot of Neil Gaiman’s books, and I love his work, and I realised, hang on, there’s something familiar here. This guy writes the way he speaks, and the way he speaks is so warm and so comforting. It’s that bard, that storyteller, sitting by the fire on a dark night saying, —Come into the circle of light, let me tell you a story. And it’s this very warm and intimate, but also comforting, voice. And he writes exactly the same way. It’s hard to do easy writing, it’s hard to make a sentence read easy. You can make a sentence convoluted in two minutes of writing, but to make that thing simple, and read clean, and impart to the reader the same information and data that you wanted to convey, that’s bloody hard. And I was thinking, —No wonder this guy’s sentences are so easy to read, no wonder I can’t put his books down when I start reading them, he reads like he speaks. So I thought to myself, —Okay, this is a skill that I definitely need to put on a to-do list and I need to acquire this somehow. The guy’s voice is just complete magic. I have no idea how he does it anyway, but it’s definitely worth learning.


    INTERVIEWER

    Pivoting, you mentioned how Nuance Dragon isn’t particularly good with your voice, and that touches on the subject of biases in machine learning algorithms, and on the nature of the data set an algorithm is trained on, which is related to your project detecting fake news. Could you talk about that other work?


    WIJERATNE

    Ah, so essentially the way I explain it is I have three day jobs. So obviously science fiction writer, that’s a thing. I work as a data scientist for a think tank that specializes in public policy in the Global South. The think tank is called LIRNEasia and we’ve, we’ve basically been all over the place. So a lot of the work that I do there falls roughly into what I would say is computational linguistics and using textual data to find answers for things like infrastructure, sometimes it’s things like networks and relationships, and sometimes it’s things like hate speech and misinformation. And the third thing is I co-founded a fact checker called Watchdog after the bombs went off in April 2019. So the fact checker has grown to about 200,000 users, and so because I took a lot of what I would say learned from Watchdog into LIRNEasia, some things I learned from LIRNEasia the other way. Sitting back and being able to do the research into misinformation from an academic perspective, with that level of data access, and with that level of six months to a year of thinking, of properly being able to think through and analyze frameworks, and so on, and I took that thinking back to the fact checker, which is more about responding X rumour right now. We monitor 11,000-odd Facebook groups, WhatsApp groups, Telegram groups, and all that massive flood of data, that fire hose, and where do we fight it? What’s the most effective? It’s a very day-to-day existence there. So, because of this I have a reigning interest in misinformation, and I have an interest in seeing if some of this stuff can be automated.

    And there’s some work that I’m doing that is basically building models to detect misinformation, to work again in a human-plus-AI fashion to see if we can build some of these models and bake them into the backend so that they work in tandem with the human to take that constant slush pile of stuff that keeps coming in, potentially flag if something is true or not, and say this is something we’re having trouble with, so pass it to the human. And thus the human fact-checkers time is better spent because it takes orders of magnitude more effort to refute bullshit than it does to produce it. So by default, even if you assume that the number of creators of misinformation—and let’s say intentional creators of misinformation, because intent is a whole other conversation in this game—if you make the number of intentional creators of misinformation equal to the number of fact-checkers in the world, the factors would still lose, because one task is inherently orders of magnitude easier than the other, and one task is more difficult. So that’s why I’m trying to see if some of this stuff can be brought in.

    So it’s a multi-dimensional project. There’s the technical aspect of recreating some of the stuff that’s in cutting edge literature, just implementing some of these models, collecting the data for different languages, like Sinhala and Bengali, some which have not really been explored this way before, building models for those, and then actually going out and talking to fact checkers and trying to identify, —Hey, can you even use this stuff? Sure, I’m a data scientist and I can create these models on the fly, but for many of our contemporaries, is this stuff useful? Do you have the tech, do you have the software to even integrate this into? Are you still working off a notepad and post-it notes? What would you need? What kind of capacity would you need? Because a lot of the hype around the AI community is very odd to see as someone from the Global South, because you see all of these wonderful things being created, and all this inventiveness and invention, and in some cases, pedantic, 1% accuracy pushers, all of that going on there. And the real world impact is completely different. Sometimes there’s no real world impact at all, other than a few people getting assistant professorships out of it. So a lot of our job at LIRNEasia is to try and bridge that and to be the real-world engineering folks that go, —Right, let’s take the cutting edge and bring it down to where we can actually use it.


    INTERVIEWER

    Trying to redistribute the future.


    WIJERATNE

    Yes. Which is always a challenge. The future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed. And nowhere is that more apparent than if you take a country like Sri Lanka and you take a country like the US or the UK, and you look at the progress in machine learning and statistics applications there. Because the future is there, it’s in GitHub repositories, you can download it. Any of these programmers can easily access these things. It’s just not evenly distributed.


    INTERVIEWER

    Do you see the tools you’re designing as things that could be in the hands of individual users, with user control of things like the sensitivity or granularity of the fact checking, or do you think these tools need to be centrally controlled?


    WIJERATNE

    I am very much vehemently opposed to central control. I come from a country where central control by idiots has resulted in a civil war that ended in 2009, where thousands of innocents died. I see the impact of centrally controlled economies and infrastructures, and in almost every case here, particularly in South Asia, particularly in India and Sri Lanka now, this central control of the narrative as a whole, and I despise it. Yes I do, at a level, I do want to see people having these tools and technologies in hand. And I think that’s inevitable now. For example, deep fakes, which was a matter of concern early on when they were being used for porn, then an even greater matter of concern when they were used to spoof politics, like what Jordan Peele did with Obama’s face. But it was still just a curio kind of thing. And now we are seeing EU lawmakers getting deepfaked video calls from Navalny’s phone. And interestingly, I can download a deep fake app onto my Android phone and I can take a photo of anyone I know and just map them onto a Hitler’s face, if I wanted to, and this is just garden variety Android technology. So this will happen. This distribution is going to happen.

    Whether my tools will be the ones, I don’t think so. I’m painfully aware that what we are doing is a stop gap. I’m going to be actually moving to a more full-time role on Watchdog, running that as a startup, as a CEO, so I don’t want to be doing that forever. I am here very much to be a tiny stop gap in that, to be as effective as I can be, to give people some tools, make this stuff open source so that everyone can build on it, and then I want to go away and I want to write my books and keep my feet up and just have arguments with my cat. I don’t necessarily think that my stuff will be at the forefront of the revolution. It’s a lot like building tires for cars. Somebody else can come and build the cars. What I’m doing is not so glamorous as it is just useful. It’s not glamorous work. I enjoy its usefulness. That’s about it. But the fiction is where I want to be. But I’m making very small, incremental change, and I’m okay with that.


    INTERVIEWER

    Moving on to ricepunk. Can you say a little bit about what ricepunk means to you and how it came about? I think it’s excellent and more people need to know about it.


    WIJERATNE

    [Laughs] Sure. So, The Ricepunk Manifesto, as with all literary manifestos, needs to be taken with a grain of salt. What it is about is a set of aesthetics that I espouse, that I have particularly started espousing more and more as I become more politically involved. Again, I work in public policy, and you know a lot of these things—bombs going off, fact-checkers, the machinery of government and society—are things that I sadly am possibly too familiar with at this stage. So ricepunk is a set of aesthetics that looks at the impact large systems, particularly systems of governance, particularly systems of economics, have on the individual, number one. Because I find that in a lot of the fiction that I read, we rarely interact so much with these. Western fiction particularly is about the individual hero who rises above and becomes a law unto themselves. But in reality, most of us play within these large systems and constraints that are set out around us, whether it’s the systems of morals, whether its almost Coasian bargaining systems that we have mutually agreed to, whether it’s social contracts, or whether it’s constitutions or laws or fear of retaliation. There is this idea of the system that we play. And I want to interrogate these systems. I want to write fiction that explores these systems. In fact, in The Salvage Crew, for example, notably Amber Rose spends a lot of time talking about the systems that he lived through, and he still lives under. Like everything in the universe is a function of budget, for example, for planetary crusade services. So this systems thinking is one part of the ricepunk aesthetics.

    The second is this idea of hybridity and a certain nihilism inherent to, I would say my own circumstances, and those of people in South Asia. We are comedians: we eat rice and burgers, we drink arak and whiskey, we are the East and the West. And the idea there is, so much of our cultural zeitgeist is a hybrid of cultures. On both sides of the extreme, you have this cultural purity crap and these gatekeepers who are trying to define some phantom, mythical state of pure culture. And what happens is we end up getting shoehorned by them both. We are neither. We are neither native enough for the true natives, nor foreign enough for the true foreigners. We’re somewhere in between.

    But the reality is that most of us in this world inhabit this kind of middle ground, this hybridity. And yes, we have very chaotic lives, and we often find ourselves taking on different identities as the social constructs around us change. And we find it necessary to keep these different identities in play all the time. And because we are hybrids we live through this extraordinary mental dichotomy where on one side, you’ll find free speech absolutists—and we hear the phrase free speech absolutists and we see whistleblowers and journalists doing their stuff against governments, and they’re protected, and they don’t get shot, while here, where we live, someone speaks out against the government, they get shot. And we constantly live—particularly because of the internet, because of this cross connection—we live in this odd mix of disbelief, I would say, combined with a certain sense of practical reality, because we constantly have to adjust to these vastly different ideals that we always find ourselves amidst. And our default framing to a certain extent is nihilism, because our governments have proved incompetent. There is no concept of meritocracy. It’s a concept of, —Who were you born to and who are you related to? And quite often the shallowest of achievements drown out the deepest of voices. So this is a reality that we have to square with. So that’s an aesthetic that I want to bring out and explore again.

    And in The Salvage Crew, there is a very depressed guy who’s on the bottom of a very, very shitty system to whom this very shitty system is still better than being a farmer on the ass-end of nowhere. So, often these are the realities that we find ourselves in, and I find it interesting to think about the stories that can be told there, because quite often, when we think about the poor and the downtrodden, we either romanticise them or we paint them on a canvas of pity and loathing. Now I’ve been very poor, as I said, been to a level where you’re incredibly hungry for weeks on end and just collapsing, even as we struggled to sit up. And the reality is that life goes on. The reality is that you find ways of living. You find little places where you get joy from. Anger, love, drama. Whether you fight the system, whether you pay the system, whether you figure out a little optimizations that let you get around the system—these are stories. And I want to tell these stories. So that’s the other aesthetic of ricepunk.

    And the third is to—what joins these things together—is really a call to imagine these multicultural, multipolar worlds that are built not on one truth, not along one ideal, there is no one framework of good or bad, but there are several, and they’re always competing. And to tell the stories of the people who are caught in the middle, as most of us are, and to write their lives. So, that’s ricepunk, that’s a set of aesthetics. Now I should probably have explained this in a paragraph, or so, but manifestos are meant to convey aesthetics. So yes, it’s a personal manifesto, it’s something that I try to do.


    INTERVIEWER

    That hybridity speaks to me and I think it is centrally important to me, because I was born in the UK, and then I lived for a decade in China, and now I’m outside both places, and so I’m both somewhere between those two poles and also somewhere else that has its own history and its own stories.


    WIJERATNE

    Exactly, exactly. And I find that the people who I’ve always been most interested in talking to are people who are hybrids, because by dint of being strangers, everywhere they go, they have a little bit more perspective on everything they’ve come across.


    INTERVIEWER

    What is really important for me, and probably the key reason I’m doing these interviews, is that I think it’s important that everyone, everywhere can have access to fiction by everyone, everywhere. And I think this is something you touched on earlier. And talking to writers like Lavanya Lakshminarayan, I get a sense that there are still too many gatekeepers. What would you like to see change in the global publishing industry to make it easier for readers and writers everywhere to experience and share stories more easily?


    WIJERATNE

    In a general sense, I have, for example, a trilogy called The Inhuman Race, which I sent you the epub of, which you can’t buy on Amazon US, you can only buy in India. And on a broader scale, the problem with science fiction and fantasy is that so much of the zeitgeist is centered around the US, and it’s not even around the UK, which I would have expected, but it’s around the US, and the US has its own particular ways of acquiring, its own information filters, and it sees only a fraction of what’s actually out there. So the best thing I can think of is for American publishing houses to potentially work with Indian agents, and to work with Indian publishing houses, and reach out in the form of competitions, or unsolicited manuscript submissions for X area, for Y area. That type of stuff is easy to set up. And that’s basically fix the input—it’s garbage in, garbage out. I’m not saying that the current crop of writers in any way are garbage, I’m just using computer terminology and slang to explain what I’m trying to clarify: if you fix the input, you get a better output, if you trust the process. So that’s one thing.

    But that again pushes more power into this very mericentric publishing ecosystem. So what I would really like to do is I would like to see regional publishers actually get their shit together and start publishing, and start acquiring, and, more importantly, start paying the writers. Because currently, for example, if you are writing in India, advances are nothing. I’ve got one of the higher end things out there, it’s a five book deal, and let me tell you, I was looking through the Publishing Paid Me Data, and that four- or five-book deal is not even comparable to some of the worst offenders on the Publishing Paid Me list. And I’m considered a highly paid in these regions, I’m considered well paid in this publishing ecosystem in terms of advances. So what I’d like to see is for local publishers to step their game up, because it’s not like there’s a lack of money in these systems. The money is there. The center of gravity of the world’s GDP is actually shifting towards India and China by 2035. Right now it’s a little bit between New York and Western Europe. By 2035 it’ll be at a point between India and China. So more and more money is swinging this way. The cultural pendulum, if you look at it, is also swinging this way, as you see more ideas being brought out, as you see more conversation rise to the fore. So I would like to see local publishers. I would like to see local conferences. I’d like to see these things come up because the problem of bending the knee and saying, —O, American publishers, buy our stuff, is it’s nice, but that’s literally not gonna solve the problem. That just is a different way of saying, —Oh, hey, here’s the white man’s burden. It’s kind of like a reverse Kipling, which I’m not totally happy with. I’d rather see our cultures and our communities be able to stand up in their own right.

    So, how could this be done? Okay, one potential thing to do is if we know the systems and the publishers that already exist are either flawed, or not paying their the writers enough, or not profitable enough, then what you potentially could do is create a couple of companies and treat it like an injection of capital, and this is something better established publishing systems and industries can easily do, where they are set up publishing operations in these regions that are then regional, but you create competition and you create this culture of paying for good art and you pay well for good art, and you create this culture that then has ripple effects on the artists who create, and in terms of competition on the on the publisher that acquire So that’s something that’s perfectly possible.

    The other is of course, tried and tested, where local regional communities recognize excellence in the way of awards and things like that. That’s cool. I think but at the end of the day you can’t eat awards. The great tragedy of this region is that there are people who will put their heart and soul into one book, one book or two books, put it out there, that’s it. And they’re done being a writer after that, because you can’t have a multi-book career, you can’t sit down and call yourself a full-time writer, you can’t sit down and call yourself a full-time artist. You are an artist, plus this. You are a writer on the weekends, but in reality, you’re doing some other set of jobs. I’d like to see full-time creatives actually being subsidised for good work. And this is possible. The economics of this are possible. You know, how Silicon Valley, for example, was kickstarted was with a lot of government subsidies, and a lot of government funding going into industries and kick-starting this very careful competition plus interdependency among themselves, where they were supplying each other with tech and ideas, but at the same time competing against each other. That kind of investment, I would love to see that in publishing.

    I know China is doing that right now because ever since Liu Cixin rose to prominence with the Hugo’s, there’s been a significant amount of interest, particularly among academia and the government, with the sources of funding available to have conferences, conventions, to fund all sorts of science fictional projects. And that is now kick-starting a wave of really excellent Chinese science fiction writing that’s coming out and being translated and now filtering into the zeitgeist. Our governments are, well, obviously way behind the curve.


    INTERVIEWER

    More money in the right places.


    WIJERATNE

    Well, not just money in the right places, but to create sustainable businesses that can continue investing in art. And the word businesses there is important, because it’s not enough to have charities just handing out funds. It’s not enough to have scholarships. You need systems that can sustain themselves because otherwise they’re always going to be propped up by a few, and whoever’s doing the propping up will eventually be controlling that segment, that market, that domain, or whatever that organization has attached to it. So I’m not saying philanthropy, I’m saying kickstart some competition and whoever’s investing in it makes some money. Fantastic. That’s good. So whoever’s doing it gets something as well. But create an actual industry of creativity.


    INTERVIEWER

    What should people be looking out for from you next?


    WIJERATNE

    So, immediately this there will be The Inhuman Peace and a non-fiction book called The State of Data. The Inhuman Peace is the continuation The Inhuman Race, which was very much my homage to Lord of the Flies meets Bioshock meets Battle Royale, and there’s possibly some interesting explanation of what it means to be human inside of it. The Inhuman Peace is the continuation of that. It’s an alternate history, alternate future, Ceylon where the British Empire never left, and now you have Thin Lizzy and the second Song Emperor all beating up on poor little Ceylon in the middle, reflecting some of the political zeitgeist of today, but set in a very weird 2035 where we have more biologically modified people than computers around. So that’s The Inhuman Race and The Inhuman Peace.

    The State of Data is a three-part exploration of the uses and abuses of big data and artificial intelligence by governments. It’s set out in the thesis, antithesis, synthesis fashion. The thesis is that states need data, and the more data a state has, the better it can provide goods and services to the population that it controls. So Kauṭilya’s Arthashastra is one of the oldest books on statecraft, and this guy advised the largest single political entity to ever exist on the Indian subcontinent, which is the Maurya Empire. This would have been back when the Silk Road was literally being created. These were people who laid the foundations there.

    So, basically, I read this text, and actually most of it is about surveys—it’s a primer on really good economics and data collection, and the structure of a state that even back in 375 BC could hold that much territory and still have an extraordinary amount of information going back and forth. Their censuses were detailed to the level of, —How many old people are there in a village? And, —How many pregnant women are there? And the king should be able to say, —Okay, that’s why we need to allocate resources from, we need to give them pensions. We need to give them the funds. So I was reading that and then meditating on why states need data. So it starts with this and it goes all the way up to modern day surveillance states. And it goes all the way up to smart cities and things of that nature. And in the antithesis, it goes very anarchistic points on why large centralized state infrastructure, this kind of central planning mentality doesn’t work.

    And it draws from the work off James Scott and Jane Jacobs to point out the way, this whole idea of the single central planner sitting there in his infinite wisdom is not a good nor useful improvement of the human condition. And the synthesis of course, brings all of this stuff together and says, yes, sure, fantastic. The theory is wonderful and all, both the central planners and the anarchists, however, here is reality, and here’s the reality that we need to adjust to, which is that we live in a world where corporations have, I would say, more information than nation States do. And you have little empires like Facebook of 2.3 billion people that know far more about their subjects than any number Cold War-era spies, or any number of former kingdoms could ever have. And how do you live? What do you do about a world like that? So that’s The State of Data, that’s a non-fiction book. Both this and The Human Peace are coming out this year.

    Then after that next year, I will have to, I’m going to have to focus on a number of—ha, ‘focus on a number of books’ is a very weird sentence. I’m currently writing a book called Origami Meteorite. That may be out, that not be yet. And I’m hesitant to tell more about it until I’ve finished it. But The Salvage Crew two and three, I will be writing that next year. So, most likely the pace will be, The Human Peace, The State of Data, then The Salvage Crew two and three, then possibly Origami Meteorite. Origami Meteorite might come first, but I think that’s highly unlikely. It’s a much larger book and it’s a completely different subject.

    And after that I have to write a book about genocide. And it’s something I’ve been putting off for while. And it is going to be fiction, but constructed out of a lot of non-fiction. So, I’ve already stood on enough mass graves, and I’ve done my research and my flying around the world, and let’s just say, I’ve seen a lot of bones and wounds and torture scenes. It’s something I’ve been putting off until I’m in a better frame of mind to write it, so it’s something like what I said earlier where I collect ideas and I put them in that box in my head. The cross-domain connections have been made, I know the story, I know how it turns out, I just don’t want to touch it yet. So let’s see, after The Salvage Crew two and three comes out, how I feel about it, whether I do that or whether I do something that I’m slightly happy about.

    INTERVIEWER

    I am definitely interested in reading that, and The State of Data, and everything else. You have your tendrils going out in so many directions. It’s wonderful.


    WIJERATNE

    I am an octopus. Or a supremely bored octopus.


    INTERVIEWER

    They’re very smart creatures.


    WIJERATNE

    Very smart, yes, but still end up on plates.



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